Sun, Feb 17, 2019 - Page 7 News List

K-pop and fancy sneakers: Kim Jong-un’s cultural revolution

North Korea remains one of the most insular countries, but there appears to be a willingness to upgrade to suit ‘the people’s tastes’

By Eric Talmadge  /  AP, PYONGYANG

Illustration: Kevin Sheu

With dancers in hot pants, factories pumping out Air Jordan lookalikes and TV dramas that are actually fun to watch, North Korean pop culture, long dismissed by critics as a kitschy throwback to the dark days of Stalinism, is getting a major upgrade under North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

The changes are being seen in everything from television dramas and animation programs to the variety and packaging of consumer goods, which have improved significantly under Kim. Whether it is a defensive attempt to keep up with South Korea or an indication that Kim is willing to embrace aspects of Western consumer culture that his predecessors might have viewed as suspiciously bourgeois is not clear.

“The most important thing for us is to produce a product that suits the people’s tastes,” Kim Kyong-hui of the Ryuwon Shoe Factory told reporters in the facility’s showroom, which is filled with dozens of kinds of shoes for running, volleyball, soccer — even table tennis.

“The respected leader Kim Jong-un has instructed us to closely study shoes from all over the world and learn from their example,” she added, pointing to a pair of flame-red, high-top basketball shoes.

To be sure, North Korea remains one of the most insular countries in the world. Change comes cautiously and anyone who openly criticizes the government or leadership, or is seen as a threat, can expect severe repercussions, but there appears to be more of a willingness under Kim to experiment around some of the edges.

The most visible upgrades are on television, and its normal menu of propaganda programs and documentaries in praise of the leaders.

Viewers of the main, state-run TV network — the only channel that can be seen anywhere in the country — are now stopping their routines to watch the latest episodes of The Wild Ginseng Gatherers of the Imjin War, a historical drama set in the late 16th century, when Korea was struggling against a Japanese invasion.

The anti-Japan, nationalistic theme is nothing new. A similar theme was used for Kim’s first big contribution to the television lineup, an animated series reviving a popular comic from his father’s era called Boy General, which made its debut in 2015. The animation, set in the Koguryo Period when Korea was fighting off Chinese incursions, was such a hit that people would stop whatever they were doing to watch it. A Boy General game was created for mobile phones. New episodes are believed to be forthcoming.

What the TV drama, first aired in July last year, and the Boy General animation share that is new is their high production value.

The acting in the drama is grittier and more compelling, the plots are more engaging, and the sets and costumes are decidedly more elaborate than in previous projects. Even the dialogue spoken in Japanese by the villains, played of course by North Korean actors, is generally accurate, although delivered with a heavy North Korean accent.

Meanwhile, Boy General makes skillful use of computer effects and is visually on par with some of the best animation in the world.

The improvements reflect awareness within Kim’s regime that the North Korean public is increasingly familiar with foreign pop culture despite severe restrictions that make it impossible for most to travel abroad, or freely experience foreign movies, music or books.

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